Io Saturnalia!

Most of our other Christmas traditions, seem to derive directly from the ancient Roman Saturnalia, the winter solstice festival. Originally a single feast day on December 17, the festival grew into a week-long celebration ending on the 23despite the efforts of several emperors to shorten it, which only resulted in public protests and open revolt. It was a time for feasting, drinking and merry making. Trees were decorated and houses hung with holly and other greenery. Masters changed places with their servants, and the slave might dine with his master or even be waiting on by him. Every house had its Saturnalicius Princeps (Master of the Saturnalia), the Lord of Misrule, chosen by lot, who had to act as foolishly as possible and was free to order others to do his bidding. Slaves wore the badge of freedom known as the pillius and were exempt from punishment; there was a school holiday and a special market (sigillaria). Senators left aside their togas for more informal clothes, and people greeted each other with “Io Saturnalia” (‘Hail/praise Saturn’) rather in the manner we say, “Merry Christmas”.

On the last day it was the custom to exchange small gifts, especially sigillaria (small pottery dolls) for the children and cerei (candles) for adults, though Martial Epigrams Book 14 (circa 84 or 85 CE) also describes writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, hunting knives, balls, perfumes, pipes, items of clothing, statues, masks, books and pets.  It ended with the Juvenalia, which was a festival of children, games, fools and misrule and merged into the Kalends of January and the New Year.

The Greek Sophist Libanius (fourth century) wrote:

Everywhere may be seen carousals and well-laden tables; luxurious abundance is found in the houses of the rich, but also in the houses of the poor better food than usual is put upon the table. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. He who erstwhile was accustomed and preferred to live poorly, now at this feast enjoys himself as much as his means will allow…. People are not only generous towards themselves, but also towards their fellow-men. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides…Another great quality of the festival is that it teaches men not to hold too fast to their money, but to part with it and let it pass into other hands.[1]

Saturn (the Latin equivalent of the Greek Cronos) was the original king of the Golden Age on earth which was temporarily regained at the Saturnalia.

© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010


[1] Quoted in Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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